Without telling me why (initially), my therapist presented me with a very simple, very compelling exercise that I will share with you now.
*TRIGGER WARNING: this exercise is designed to probe for some very disturbing thoughts – practice basic safety and do not attempt if you feel vulnerable.*
Imagine – really imagine, with your whole mind and body – that you are fighting for your life. Put your hands in front of you. Push out hard and say “NO” (out loud).
Now notice what that felt like in your body.
If you’re sitting there going, “What the hell was the point of that?” then you’re among the majority of people.
If you’re sitting there thinking that felt extremely weird, upsetting, uncomfortable, or maybe even impossible, you may have learned to freeze in the face of danger.
I didn’t pass the test. Could barely make the motion of pushing out and couldn’t say anything out loud.
What does this all mean?
I don’t know, but I feel pretty freaked out. And the more Karen told me about this little exercise, the worse I felt.
Freezing in the face of danger is a learned behaviour. The natural, instinctive response to a threat is to kick, scream, scratch, punch and basically do whatever it takes to protect yourself. Suppressing that instinct takes work. It takes practice. Somehow, at some point, I have learned that it feels safer to just give in.
Of course there are a million explanations as to why this exercise felt difficult. But the fact is that I was filled with a vague kind of dread as I realized that I knew exactly what Karen was getting at. I think back to those joking situations you find yourself in – getting picked up by a boy and thrown in a pool, for example – and how I have literally frozen in the past. As in I felt like I’d passed out but knew I was awake. I wanted to kick and scream and I wanted to be put down but I went completely numb and absent. When I finally was put down, limp on the ground, everyone wondered what the hell had happened – I wondered what the hell had happened. Conclusion at the time: picking me up and spinning had made blood rush to my head and I’d passed out. But I knew the truth. I hadn’t passed out. I’d pretended to. And I had (and have) no idea why.
The more Karen said about the learned response to freeze in the face of personal danger, the more I felt like we were edging into something I wasn’t ready to handle – again, with no real idea of what was happening or what that something was.
What the hell is going on?
I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not I believe in repressed memories and false memory syndrome. Can something traumatic truly be forgotten? Or rather, forgotten by the conscious mind? Because the truth is that even as I type this I can feel that my whole body seems to remember something that my mind does not.
Karen said not to freak out, and to “pack this stuff away” until our next session (yeah fucking right) and that the obvious conclusion isn’t necessarily the right one, etc. etc. but I feel incredibly anxious at the idea that something undiscovered is most definitely there.
In a way I feel like the pieces are coming together but I don’t know if I want to see the complete picture once they do.