Unbecoming an Armadillo
By: Victoria F. Burns, PhD, LSW
“When you are traumatized, you are basically in a permanent defensive mode”
— Gabor Mate
I’m sitting across from Meg on her charcoal grey love seat. My forearms are resting on a velvety mustard-yellow throw cushion and I’m holding crescent shaped pulsers in each hand. Meg’s my psychologist; a rare gem who specializes in chronic illness and trauma. Every two weeks, we spend an hour together doing somatic Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. We work on everyday triggers, like the recent “you ok?” text from my friend Sally that set off a grenade in my body. Tracing my triggers back to difficult childhood experiences while focusing on buzzing sensations in each hand feels a bit ‘woo-woo’; but the efficacy of EMDR for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Complex PTSD is hard to ignore. More importantly, it’s working for me — so I try not to question it too much.
As I describe the text exchange, Meg gently inquires,
“Victoria, what are you feeling in your body?”
Like most trauma survivors, this question is not only annoying, it is almost impossible for me to answer. For most of my life, I’ve been disconnected from my body, feelings, emotions, and senses.
“I don’t know” I reply.
Meg asks me to close my eyes and focus on the bilateral pulsing sensations. I feel my palms heating up. As I think about Sally’s text, I start paying attention to the tightening of my shoulders and chest. A massage therapist once told me I had the tightest traps she had ever felt or seen. My shoulders are permanently rounded forward; a side effect of protective posturing and over a decade of university studies. As I focus in on my breath, my hyperactive mind is arrested by a vivid image of an armadillo. I notice the tiny gladiator’s unique features. A soft vulnerable belly covered by a full suit of armor. I am envious; when threatened, the armadillo can roll itself tightly into a protective shell, completely hidden away from the external world.
Without meaning to, I blurt out, “I feel like an armadillo.”
I return to my body and start noticing a familiar wave of heat fueled by the emotion I fear most: anger; paralytic rage. I pause and think to myself: “How dare Sally invade my privacy out of the blue like that?” I’m terrified and ashamed for feeling anger over something that shouldn’t bother me. I’m ashamed to tell Meg I’m angry because it goes against my good girl image.
“Why can’t I just act normally?” I think to myself.
I’m brought back to the room by Meg’s voice. She points out that I am posturing inward; my arms are twitching.
“Victoria, when did you first start feeling like an armadillo?”
Once more, I feel a familiar heat of anger, now muted by shame. I focus on my breath. In and out. In and out. In and out. The room goes completely silent for what feels like eternity. Suddenly, I am flooded with vivid memories. The words start spilling out:
I’m 5 years old. I’m at school in the bathroom. I just threw up. For lunch I ate half the mayonnaise and processed cheese singles sandwich I prepared myself three days earlier. My five-year old brain came up with idea of making all my lunches Sunday night and storing them in my backpack so I wouldn’t forget. I didn’t realize how soon the mayonnaise would go bad without being refrigerated. I showed my teacher the three extra sandwiches squished at the bottom of my book bag. When I saw her face, I immediately felt the heat of shame. How could I be so stupid? Why can’t I do anything right? I was didn’t want her to call my parents; I knew they’d be mad. She had to call - I was too sick to stay at school. On the drive home there is total silence. I want to hide and get away but have nowhere to go.
I’m 9 years old. My older sister and I bake a boxed vanilla cake for Mom’s birthday. After dinner, we sneak into the kitchen, but can’t find any candles. We proudly bring out the cake, singing Happy Birthday. Immediately, Mom’s face drops into a scowl. She pulls out her chair, furious, she starts yelling: “No candles? A birthday cake is not a birthday cake without candles!” She storms into the living room, grabs the solid maple coffee table, and throws it. My sister starts to cry. I freeze. Mom grabs her purse, storms out of the house. I hear the tires squealing as she exits the driveway. My body tightens, I say nothing, and run down to my bedroom to hide. A couple of hours later, Dad comes into my room, “Your mother is back, go apologize and tell her you love her.” I resent him. I know we didn’t do anything wrong but I do as I’m told so no one gets more upset.
I’m 12 years old. I break my arm skateboarding. On the walk home my mind pulses with panic; I’m scared to tell my parents. But the pain is unbearable. In effect, Dad gets angry for needing to drive me to the hospital. The pain from the fracture pales in comparison to the pain I feel inside for being a disappointment.
I’m brought back to Meg’s couch. I’m no longer able to speak. My palms are dripping with sweat, my body is tight, and my legs are twitching uncontrollably. Meg asks me once again to focus on my body.
“What are you feeling now Victoria?”
I pause. I’m unsure. I want to act normal and answer the question, but I can’t. Against my will, my body freezes. Silence. I focus on my breath again. After a few minutes, I start shaking uncontrollably. Then, a release, followed by an animalistic wail. Meg’s gentle voice guides me.
“Take a few minutes to process this, everything is ok, just focus on the pulsing.”
I follow her instructions. Without any judgement, she asks,
“When all this happened to you, who did you tell?”
No one. I hid and didn’t cry. I never cried in front of people. Like when I was 8 and our hamster Harry died. Even though I was sad and watched my sisters cry, I hid. When my beloved grandfather died when I was 12, I hid. I told myself that I needed to be strong and not show any emotion. I had to be ok so that nobody got more upset.
“What was little Victoria telling herself when she hid away?” Meg inquires,
I need to take care of myself. I need to try harder. It’s never safe to ask for help. Never ever make a mistake. If you do, everyone will be angry and disappointed. They will reject you. You will be alone.
Once again, I focus on the pulsing. Within minutes, I feel an overwhelming sense of calm come over me. Miraculously, I feel safe. My system is learning to regulate itself.
“The essence of trauma is the disconnection of the self “— Peter Levine
Trauma is a slippery and misunderstood concept. In the DSM-5, trauma is defined as the experiencing, witnessing, or having knowledge of a loved one enduring a life-threatening event. This definition only tells part of the story. For instance, some people experience life-threatening events and don’t display traumatic symptoms. Think the thrill seeking 7’s on the Enneagram. In contrast, many people have traumatic reactions to events that do not pose a threat to their lives. Ultimately trauma has less to do with the objective event, and more with how it is experienced and processed.
A critical protective factor against trauma is whether the person received support at the time of the event (s). John Allen PhD devised the equation scared + alone = trauma. When you experience trauma, you don’t have to be physically alone, but if you felt alone when you were experiencing overwhelming emotions and had no one to go to, you will likely develop trauma. The bottom line is that understanding trauma requires taking into account an individual’s subjective experience. It involves much more that fitting people into neat categorical boxes as the DSM does. It necessitates getting close to the pain and moving through it with someone you trust.
The work I do with Meg has allowed me to realize that I was triggered by Sally’s seemingly innocuous “you ok?” text because of the trauma survivor 90/10 “when it’s hysterical it’s historical” rule: 10% is reality, 90% is recall. Even though I know rationally that Sally is a kind person and means me no harm, my body doesn’t’ recognize it, and is ready to defend itself.
The middle child sandwiched between two sisters, I was the poised, quiet, responsible, reasonable, and agreeable one. I was the “good girl”, always in control. The parentified child. An old soul as people liked to call me. To avoid getting hurt, I learned to say nothing, and roll myself tightly into my armored perfectionist shell. Even though my repression made me look fine on the outside, my vulnerable insides held onto deep rooted feelings of hurt, anger, shame, self-loathing, and disappointment.
When asked by health care providers about my trauma history, I have historically answered reluctantly because of narrow ideas of what constitutes trauma. Feeling as though my trauma was not traumatic enough has been paradoxically retraumatizing. Like my half rapes.
Even though I knew my parents loved me, I don’t recall them asking if I was ever ok. They assumed I was because, as a survival strategy, I hid. I tucked my True Self away. Healing trauma requires compassionately recovering the parts of self that were there all along.
Recovery as Healing Shame
“Recovery is about not keeping secrets about what you did in order to survive”— Bessel Van der Kolk
Trauma by nature is secretive and shameful. Brené Brown, PhD leading shame expert says that shame needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment.
The word shame comes from the root word ‘skem’ which means ‘to cover’, because of loss of self-esteem or reputation, modesty, guilt or disgrace. It amazes me at the gym when I see women holding normal conversations with each other completely in the buff. I have never been able to do this. To this day, I cover myself with a towel, as I awkwardly pull on each garment of clothing, careful not to let the towel drop. But the need to cover up is not just in relation to the physical body. When we feel like bad meat at a deep visceral level, we cover up our true selves in order to survive. It is by taking off the masks in safe, compassionate environments, like Meg’s office, that we begin to heal.
Dutch psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk suggests that trauma survivors often experience intense and barely controllable urges that make them feel crazy, like they don’t belong to the human race. As a result, shame becomes the dominant emotion and hiding the truth the central preoccupation.
Until recently, I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I didn’t know why I kept collecting more chronic illnesses and the game of addiction what-a-mole never ceased to end. I didn’t understand why I was constantly afraid and worried, walking on eggshells, waiting for the next shoe to drop; why sensed injustices and disrespect felt like the world was going to end; why I kept saying yes when I meant no; why I had an allergy to expressing anger; why disappointing others felt like death; why I never felt good enough, despite my objective successes. What I know for sure is that trauma robs us of safety and choice; I know that my alcoholism and chronic illnesses started well before I picked up my first drink; I know that I’m not crazy, I’m a trauma survivor.